If The NeverEnding Story and Labyrinth could have a baby…and that baby was a western… you’d be left with the latest big screen adaptation of Stephen King novel. The Dark Tower leaves plenty to be desired but isn’t nearly as bad as the reputation it currently has. I can understand vehement fans of the book series not exactly loving this movie, but it’s unfair to compare the books to the film adaptation anyway, so let’s just put that aside for now.
Credit to Marisol Roncali and Mary Vernieu for having vision and casting Idris Elba in the role of The Gunslinger, Roland Deschain. Although the novels paint him as a Clint Eastwood type, that archetype has been exhausted and Elba proved to be more than capable of handling the character. Honestly, he’s the best part of the movie by far and compelling enough to build a franchise around even if the movie itself doesn’t warrant any sequels…but that remains to be seen. It was great to see him get a more prominent role in a mainstream project after a career of excellent performances, but sadly he’s still underutilized in the context of this film. Tom Taylor is the real lead in the film playing Jake Chambers. He is the kid having nightmarish visions of the impending war between worlds and it’s his journey, to track down Roland in order to save the day, which the audience is watching. The pair have a surrogate relationship which is good enough on screen to get the audience through the film, but ultimately exposes a weak script for its lack of character depth across the board. Both of them lost their fathers and that loss in a central and connective element between their characters. Unfortunately those narratives are rushed along hurriedly in the beginning of the movie, so by the time the payoff rolls around it’s not as satisfying as it should be.
Matthew McConaughey as the Man in Black, Walter O’Dim, was one of the most exciting prospects about this film. He has a natural charisma that’s always driven his characters throughout his career, but that is surprisingly absent in this movie. The character isn’t so menacing or detestable that you hate him, but he’s not as enjoyable to watch in the villain role as I hoped…he’s just kind of there. The near omnipresence of the Man in Black put McConaughey all over the place throughout the film, but it didn’t appear he was having much fun playing the character and it detracts from his potential as the antagonist. A charismatic villain who’s fun to watch can add extra layers of enjoyment that actually make the film something special and there were just a lot of missed opportunities to utilize McConaughey’s sense of humor. Again, I think this speaks to a weak script by director Nikolaj Arcel, Jeff Pinkner, Anders Thomas Jensen and Akiva Goldsman. The Man in Black is so powerful and heartless in pursuit of his goal, it doesn’t make sense for him to be as petty as he is in some instances. I can’t tell if it’s solely a bad adaptation by the screenwriters, but I doubt King would have been able to write eight books in the series if the villain was no good. If that wasn’t bad enough, I don’t know what the hell was going on with McConaughey’s hair in this movie but I couldn’t take my eyes off of that trainwreck. Perhaps someone spent too much time watching Christopher Walken in The Prophecy but (looks like) it’s very clearly a bad wig or some kind of hair piece at least half the time and his stylist, Felicity Bowring, couldn’t do much to put out that dumpster fire.
Aside from the piece of roadkill on his head, there were some strong design elements in the movie. When creating the aesthetic for a fantasy world the challenge isn’t to suspend the disbelief of the audience, rather to embrace their imaginations. So, visualizing King’s elaborate world was going to be one of the tougher tasks when bringing this story to the big screen, but in that regard Dark Tower does a more than adequate job presenting a compelling and semi-frightening fantasy world for the story to unfold. Christopher Glass and Oliver Scholl did a great job with the production design from the top down, blending elements of fantasy, science fiction and classic westerns together. Supervising Art Directors Guy Potgieter and Brad Ricker not only had to worry about crafting two separate, primary worlds but also did a good job interpreting creature design and the skin people from the source material. There is a sufficiently creepy feel to it all and the evil clawing at the door has a Stranger Things vibe which should create some accessibility for that Netflix audience.
This film has a relatively dark tone hanging over it considering it’s PG-13, which seems like a misstep from Sony. It feels like they didn’t know which demographic they wanted to sell the movie to and wound up not committing to adults or adolescents completely, resulting in a movie that won’t ultimately build strong connections with either. Condensing an eight book series into a 95-minute film effectively enough to please the hardcore fans of the novels, but also please a finicky box-office crowd inundated with superhero films all summer, was a tall task in itself. Building on that to potentially create a film franchise is enough of a gamble to begin with, but mortgaging the quality of the first film adaptation in favor of the long play is a big problem. All things considered, this movie really isn’t that bad…it’s just not good either. If Sony decides to move forward with the franchise they may want to consider replacing Arcel as director.
Recommendation: If you’re in the mood for some entertainment without any commitment, this movie is right up your alley. It’s not long enough to be a real waste of time and for fans of 80s fantasy films there is a lot of nostalgia on the table. There is a lot of killing, but it’s not graphic or gratuitous so it’s relatively palatable for families with kids around 13.